Scientists, artists, politicians and explorers have explained, sometimes beautifully, why books are essential. They are, for instance, “fundamental to all human achievement and progress”, according to Astronaut Neil Armstrong. But is logical reasoning like this the true reason we are drawn to books, why we worship them? Is there more to it?
Kafka – that masterful writer of spiritual and physical transformation – suggested books acted like axes to break “frozen seas” within us. Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful thoughts expressed in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is said by the character of Hector – the student’s teacher:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Both Kafka’s and Bennett’s quotes speak to the ability books seem to have to break down spiritual barriers we erect within our souls and bridge chasms and divides – connecting us, spiritually, with the thoughts of others. There is almost a sense of transformative power here – one built on subtlety and tenderness; an act of healing, a self-salvation, a self-creation.
We read for countless reasons and books transform us in countless ways, reckoned and unreckoned. Some of these reasons have been pondered by some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, from Galileo to Umberto Eco.
Adding her own contribution to this incredible wealth of ideas is Jeanette Winterson — one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, a maker of axes and lifelines welded and woven of words.
Just like Bennett’s Hector, Winterson asks how can it be possible that single person’s experience can become raw material for something that speaks to generations of strangers, something that shapes selves radically different from the author’s and from each other’s? How, in short, can a writer from the other side of the world – or the other side of history – pen stories and ideas that bring connection and the most intimate of emotions to so many countless others, across the span of generations?
She considers what it takes to write from a deeply personal place in a way that bridges the abyssal divide between consciousnesses:
The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own. Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.
From this point, she also reminds us that, as readers, we find in stories a realisation that we are, in our own worlds and lives, living stories ourselves. Our journeys, and our adventures – our very lives – are echoes of those we find in the pages of books:
“The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined, not only one gender or passion. Learning to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is liberating — it is the difference between energy and mass. Mass is the beloved object — the world we can touch and feel — but mass is also the dead weight in ourselves and others.”
One of the things both fictional stories and our own personal adventures/stories share is uncertainty; the unknown mystery that waits for us tomorrow, or around the corner, mirrors the lack of knowledge we have as readers before we turn the page. The fact that we are always figuring ourselves forward in an uncertain universe — becomes a safe vessel from which to explore the uncharted territories of our knowledge and our self-knowledge:
Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere — across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us — into the heart of anguish we have never felt — crimes we could not commit.
Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood — which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us.
Books read us back to ourselves.